Lecturer in Physical Chemistry
Faculty of Science, University of Bath
Dr Petra Cameron works at the University of Bath where she is a Lecturer in Physical Chemistry in the Faculty of Science. Petra is an active scientific researcher and was awarded the Harrison-Meldola memorial prize and medal by the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2009 for her work on solar cells, which was deemed to be amongst the year’s most meritorious and promising original independent investigation in chemistry. Petra’s decision to enter a scientific career was all down to the inspiring science teaching she experienced whilst at school and having the opportunity to conduct experiments at an after-school science club. This is a decision she has not regretted, and she has successfully managed to combine her full-time career with parenthood, following the arrival of her baby girl a few months ago. Petra recently talked to jobs.ac.uk about the job she loves.
Before starting her job as lecturer at the start of 2012, Petra had already worked at the University of Bath as an Research Council UK (RCUK) academic research fellow for five years. This research role had included a gradually increasing teaching workload which made for a smooth transition to Petra’s new lecturing position:
“As the time progressed during my RCUK fellowship I did more teaching and its associated administration, which was the ideal preparation for becoming a lecturer. I now teach undergraduate first and second year chemistry students physical chemistry, which involves about six hours a week of teaching time. In addition to that I also teach practicals in the laboratory, which occupies up to a day and a half each week.
“I really enjoy the teaching aspect of my work, and particularly like interacting with smaller groups of students in our regular tutorials. Watching them develop and seeing their enthusiasm for chemistry grow is very rewarding.
“The team here comprises 32 full-time members of staff in the chemistry department. I love working in our collaborative and friendly team, and the University of Bath has a great reputation for helping younger people to develop and progress their academic careers.”
Like all academics, Petra has found her working hours extend way beyond any notions of a traditional 9-5 working day.
“Before my daughter was born I used to stay at the university until around 7 pm, but these days I need to make sure I leave by 5 pm to collect her from nursery. I start work at around 9.30 am, and once my baby is asleep in the evening I usually do another two hours work at home. At the weekend I often squeeze in a few hours’ marking. There aren’t enough hours in the day, although I work these hours because I love my job and I want to, rather than the university expecting me to. I care about my students and my research, and so I’m motivated to get the work done.”
Research is a vital aspect of any academic’s work and this is no less true for Petra. Before any research can take place, she needs to ensure the necessary funding is in place, and this is a time-consuming aspect of the job:
“Once I have generated a research idea, I have to see if this is viable by undertaking ‘Proof of Principle’ work, with some initial research conducted by me. The next stage is assembling a research team from academics in the UK or abroad. I then write the research proposal, which is about 10-15 sides of A4. I need to explain how the research is relevant and will be of benefit to the UK. Once I’ve secured the funding, I can recruit my team, which will include postgraduate PhD students, whom I then supervise.
“Only a small percentage of my grant proposals are accepted – less than 10%. So inevitably I spend a lot of my time writing proposals that won’t be funded, which can be tough, but there is less money around these days for research. But chemistry is integral to the world we live in and research like mine, which relates to energy problems and sustainable energy does still attract funding.”
Petra’s research focuses on new materials and devices for solar energy and one current project involves generating electricity from algae:
“This research involves growing algae in chambers and obtaining electrons from them which can be used to generate power. The power outputs are low, but there are various applications such as sensing toxins in waste water or generating the power for a sensor or light. I also conduct research into Dye Sensitised Solar Cells, and look at various questions including developing new materials and investigating why they don’t work as well as they should.”
Petra has found that as her scientific career has advanced, she has progressively spent less time in the lab actually performing the research herself.
“My job is much more about managing the research and the people these days. Initially I found this a big transition, and I felt sad about not being in the lab as much. However I enjoy the whole process of research, from generating ideas, securing funding, to obtaining the results and publishing my work in journals. Making new scientific discoveries is so rewarding. I have suddenly become a people manager and I am enjoying that!
Petra returned to her job at the University of Bath just eight weeks after her daughter was born, albeit part-time to start with.
“Having a supportive partner makes all the difference and we share all aspects of the baby-care. Working in a university is flexible, and we are fortunate in that there is aworkplace nursery here. My partner works in the same department as me, which has made all the difference.”
Petra’s advice for anyone is to pursue an academic career wholeheartedly if you are interested:
“Of course you’ll need a PhD and experience as a postdoctoral researcher before you can apply for lecturing jobs. I worked in Germany as a researcher before I had any family commitments and this was an amazing experience and is something I would recommend to anyone. English is universally spoken in universities in Europe and beyond, so language is not usually a barrier. However, once I was working as a research assistant at the Max Plank Institute in Germany, they did offer language classes which were invaluable.
“My other advice to anyone interested in an academic career is to be strategic and to focus on what you really want to do. I always want to do absolutely everything perfectly, and this isn’t always possible.”
Dr Petra Cameron attended the University of Edinburgh for her first degree in Chemistry, graduating with first class honours. She then moved to the University of Bath to undertake her PhD entitled ‘Studies of Dye Sensitized Solar Cells’.
After her PhD Petra moved to Germany to take up a research position with the Max Plank Institute for Polymer Research in Mainz, a job she held for two years. Petra then returned to the UK and to Bath University to become an Academic Research Fellow with the Research Council UK (RCUK). At the beginning of 2012 she was appointed Lecturer in Physical Chemistry at the University of Bath.